Once you start baking your own bread, there’s no turning back.
Contrary to what many think, baking bread is not at all difficult. It doesn’t even have to take up much of your time. Sure, many recipes require lots of kneading, exact temperatures and keeps you occupied for hours. But in the age of the no knead bread there’s no need for any of that.
No knead breads are one of the most forgiving things you can make. The dough is done in a couple of minutes and then you just leave it until you’re ready to shape it into a bread and bake it. Perhaps after you’re back from work, or when you get up in the morning. And if your plans change – or you’re just too tired, you can always just knock the air out of it and put it in the fridge for a new attempt the following day. If that’s not forgiving I don’t know what is!
This recipe is for a bread I mage several times a week. It’s light enough to go alongside dinner, and wholesome enough for breakfast or lunch. It’s even healthy – as most homemade breads are. Where breads made in factories have all sorts of additives to provide the maximum amount of rise in the least amount of time, this bread only includes what is necessary: Flour, salt, water. And a little yeast.
There are primarily two things that make the no knead bread so tasty, none of them related to the absence of kneading. First, the dough has a high water content. This makes the bread moist and helps develop nice little air pockets in the crumb. Second, the long rise gives flavour the time it needs to develop. And the combination of the two – lots of water and lots of time – ensures the gluten network (which keeps the bread from collapsing when it rises) develop perfectly all on its own, without any kneading required.
No knead breads are commonly baked in smoking hot cast iron or clay pots. Keeping the lid on during the first part of cooking emulates the effects of stone ovens saturated with steam used in professional bakeries, giving an excellent oven rise and beautiful breads every single time. I have only one such pot, however, and it is large and circular. When I bake breads in it the breads become…large and circular. For me, it’s not practical. Great for dinner – not so much for sandwiches. Besides, I don’t particularly enjoy carrying several kilos worth of scorching hot cast iron with loose parts around the kitchen.
Instead, I use a baking stone for heat, and a splash of hot water to the bottom of the oven to create steam. This isn’t as fancy as it sounds. Mine is a 2cm thick piece of granite cut to measure by a kitchen countertop maker (it’s actually kitchen countertop material). Other materials also work well and there are plenty of options available online. A pizza stone will also do, though the thicker the better. Thin ones won’t be able to retain enough head and the temperature will drop too much. The point of the baking stone is to give lots of heat from below, allowing the bread to rise as much as possible before the crust forms and stops any further rise. If the temperature drops too much, this won’t happen.
Don’t worry if you haven’t got one though – even if all you have is the oven tray that came with your oven the result will still be very good.
Baking bread is not an activity that requires a lot of gadgets. To me, the only crucial one is a good kitchen scale. When it comes to baking, weight measures beat volume measures hands down. I always weigh all ingredients when baking – including water. I also find dough scrapers useful and keep to different types, one made of plastic and one of metal. These are cheap and very helpful when it comes to getting the dough out of the bowl and for shaping the loaves. If you don’t have them, a baking spatula and your hands will do the job, if not quite as well. I also use proofing baskets, allowing the breads to keep their shape during the final rise and ensuring your breads come out looking all beautiful. If you’d like to bake your own breads on a regular basis I recommend getting them, but if you don’t have them you could use a large bread tin lined with a floured kitchen towel instead.
Virtually all brands of flour will yield a good result – the process is more important to the final result than the quality of the flour. However, be aware that mass produced flours are often treated and come with artificial additives in case this is important to you. Organic flours are not. As a result, non-organic flours will often rise a little more than organic flours. Do try different brands and types if you can to find out which you prefer – while the method is most important, the quality of the flour itself does impact the flavour as well as the rise of the bread. Personally, I prefer organic flour produced at a small scale, however availability and price means I often use mass produced flour too.
In my experience, fresh yeast gives a slightly better rise than dried or instant yeast. If you can’t get hold of it, however, don’t worry – dried or instant will work just fine too. The amount of yeast needed depends on three variables: the temperature of the ingredients, the room temperature where the dough will rise and for how long the dough will rise. My ingredients and room temperatures are around 20 C (68 F) in winter, and I leave the breads to rise 8-10 hours during the bulk rise. For this, I need around 4 g fresh yeast per kg of flour. If your place is colder, or you have less time, use a little more yeast. If it’s hotter, or you want to leave the dough for longer, use a little less. This is no exact science and there is quite a bit of room to maneuvre – and you’ll quickly learn to adapt your dough to the conditions. But whatever you do, avoid using water that is very hot – I would not use anything above 25 C (77 F).
The bulk rise – i.e. the first rise – of this bread is fairly long. If you want fresh bread for lunch the following day, make the dough before going to bed the evening before. If you’re baking the breads in the evening, make the dough in the morning. Yields two large loaves.
Wholesome no knead bread
- 675 g strong white bread flour
- 325 g wholemeal flour
- 20 g salt
- 4-6 g fresh yeast (or 1-3 g dried or instant yeast)
- 780 g water at c. 20 C (68 F)
- 1-2 tbsp each of rice flour (optional) and white flour, to line the proofing baskets
- a little hot tap water (c. 50 ml)
- If using dried yeast, check package instructions for activating the yeast before making the dough.
- Mix the dry ingredients and crumble over the yeast. Add water and mix well until there are no traces of flour. I use a sturdy wooden spatula for this, use your hands if you like. The dough will be very sticky. Cover with plastic wrap or a cover and leave to rise for 6-12 hours.
- Turn the dough onto a clean, unfloured work surface. Sprinkle a little flour over the dough and split it into two halves, using a kitchen scale to get the weight exactly equal if you like. Using a dough scrape, flip the two doughs so the floured surface faces down. Fold the edges of the dough towards the middle as if you were making an envelope. With the last move, roll the dough so the side with the folds faces down. Sprinkle a little flour over and leave to rest under a kitchen towel for 20-30 minutes. Usually doing this once is enough, but if the dough has flattened and spread out a lot, repeat the folding process and leave to rest for another 20-30 minutes before continuing.
- Mix equal parts of rice flour and white flour (or use only white flour) and line the proofing baskets with plenty of the mixture. If using regular bread tins, cover with a kitchen towel lined with plenty of the mixture.
- When ready to shape the breads, sprinkle the doughs with a little flour and brush off any excess. Flip and shape into a batard, i.e. a bread shape. There are many ways of doing this, see “How to shape a bread” below for my method. Once shaped, place in the proofing baskets, seam side up. Sprinkle a little flour on top, cover with a kitchen towel and leave to rise until doubled or nearly doubled in size, 2-3 hours (the warmer the spot, the faster it rises). If you’re in a hurry you may do it after 1 hour. Your bread will still be great, though the texture may be a little on the bouncy side.
- Place the baking stone (if using) in the oven and set it to 260 C (500 F). Leave for at least half an hour to allow the baking stone to get sufficiently hot. If using a regular oven tray you only need to make sure the oven is properly hot before baking. Place a tray at the bottom of the oven to splash the water onto.
- When ready to bake, sprinkle a good amount of rice/white flour mixture on a cutting board or something else you can use to slide the bread into the oven. Invert the breads onto the cutting board (you may need two or do them in turns). Make a 3-4 cm (1-1.5 in) deep incision along the length of the top of the bread at a near horizontal angle. This ensures the dough will rise beautifully in the oven rather than exploding where it feels like. Transfer to the baking stone as quickly as possible, throw a little hot water into the tray at the bottom of the oven and close the oven door immediately. Lower the temperature to 230 C (445 F) and bake for 20 minutes.
- After 20 minutes, open the oven door for a few seconds to release any steam. Continue cooking until the breads are ready, 10-20 minutes (30-40 minutes in total). If you don’t have a baking stone it may even take longer. For best results, use an oven thermometer. The breads are ready when they have reached 96-98 C (205-209 F). Leave to cool completely before slicing the bread.
How to shape breads
The point of shaping the breads before baking is to create a tension in the surface of the dough. This way, it’ll rise and keep its shape nicely. It is important to work relatively quickly, otherwise it may get a little messy. Use a little flour if you must, but try to use as little as you can, otherwise you’ll get visible flour lines in the bread.
- Sprinkle a little flour on the dough and, using your hands, brush away any excess. Flip so the floury side faces down.
- Grab the side furthest away from you, stretch it a little and fold it around 1/3 of the way towards the middle. “Glue” the edges to their new place by gently pushing with your fingers.
- Grab each of the left and right corner furthest away from you and fold in towards the middle. Again, “glue” the edges to their new place by gently pushing with your fingers.
- Repeat the first movement (folding the side furthest away from you towards you) until you have a bread-shaped roll.
- Gently roll with your hands and place in the proofing basket, with the final seam facing up.
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